Naomi Mitchison

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Naomi Mary Margaret Mitchison
Naomi Mitchison young.jpg
Naomi Mitchison, photographed in about 1920
Born (1897-11-01)1 November 1897
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died 11 January 1999(1999-01-11) (aged 101)
Carradale, Scotland
Occupation Biologist
Nurse
writer
Language English
Ethnicity Scottish
Education Society of Oxford Home Students
Period 1914–15
Genre Historical, science fiction, travelogue and autobiography
Spouse Gilbert Richard Mitchison
Children Geoffrey Mitchison (1918–1927)
Denis Mitchison (born 1919)
Murdoch Mitchison (born 1922)
Avrion Mitchison (born 1928)
Lois Mitchison
Valentine Mitchison
Clemency Mitchison
Relatives John Scott Haldane (father)
J. B. S. Haldane (brother)

Naomi Mary Margaret Mitchison, CBE (née Haldane; 1 November 1897 – 11 January 1999) was a Scottish novelist and poet. Often referred to as the doyenne of Scottish literature, she wrote over 90 books covering a wide range of genre including historical, science fiction, travelogue and autobiography.[1] With her husband Gilbert Richard Mitchison becoming a life peer in 1964, she was also entitled to call herself Lady Mitchison, but never used the title herself.[2] She was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1981.[3]

Following her father John Scott Haldane and elder brother J. B. S. Haldane, Naomi Mitchison initially pursued scientific career. From 1908 she and her brother started investigating Mendelian genetics. Their publication in 1915 became the first demonstration of genetic linkage in mammals.[4] But while a diploma student at Society of Oxford Home Students (later St Anne's College, Oxford), the First World War broke out that changed her interest to nursing.

Her finest novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) is regarded by some as the best historical novel of the 20th century.[5]

Naomi Mitchison was a vocal feminist, particularly campaigning for birth control. We Have Been Warned (1935) is regarded as her most controversial work due to explicit sexuality. The book was rejected by leading publishers and ultimately censored.[6]

Biography[edit]

Childhood and family background[edit]

Naomi Margaret Haldane was born at Edinburgh, the daughter and younger child of the physiologist John Scott Haldane and his wife (Louisa) Kathleen Trotter. Naomi's parents came from different political backgrounds, her father being a Liberal and her mother from a Tory and pro-imperialist family. However, both families were of landed stock, and the Haldane family had been feudal barons of Gleneagles since the 13th century, but were nevertheless known for their achievements in other spheres. Today, the best known member of the family is probably Naomi's elder brother, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964), but in her youth her paternal uncle Richard Burdon Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane, twice Lord Chancellor (from 1912–1915 under Herbert Henry Asquith, and in 1924 during the first Labour government of Ramsay Macdonald), was better known.

Naomi followed her brother and was educated at the Oxford Preparatory (later Dragon) School, Oxford, during 1904 to 1911. She was the only girl.[7] From 1911 she was home tutored by a governess. In 1914 she qualified the Oxford higher local examination and entered the Society of Oxford Home Students (later renamed St Anne's College) under University of Oxford to pursue degree course in science. Before she completed the course she chose to become a nurse as the First World War broke out. After completing a course of first aid and home nursing in 1915, she joined a VAD at St Thomas's Hospital, London. Her service was much curtailed after catching scarlet fever.[8]

The Haldanes were known for their self-styled domestic experiments. With her brother John, she started investigating Mendelian genetics in 1908. They initially used guinea pigs as experimental models, but changed to mice as they were more convenient to handle. Their findings were published as "Reduplication in mice" in 1915. This was in fact the first demonstration of genetic linkage in mammals.[4]

On 11 February 1916 Naomi married the barrister Gilbert Richard Mitchison (23 March 1894 – 14 February 1970), who was a close friend of her brother Jack. He was then on leave from the Western Front of World War I, and like her, he came from a well-connected and wealthy family. Her husband became a QC, then a Labour politician, and eventually a Life Peer on 5 October 1964 as Baron Mitchison of Carradale in the County of Argyll on retirement for his political work. His wife Naomi thus became Lady Mitchison (as the wife of a Life Peer), but which she objected. Naomi played active part in her husband's political career as well as in his constituency duties.[9]

Dick and Naomi Mitchison's Her marriage was not entirely satisfactory, and after some years they both agreed to open marriage. Both she and her husband entered into several other relationships, which were conducted with dignity and described with humour. They had seven children. Their four sons were Geoffrey (1918–1927, who died of meningitis) Denis (born 1919) later a professor of bacteriology, Murdoch (born 1922), and Avrion (born 1928), both professors of zoology. Their three daughters were Lois, Valentine, and Clemency (who died in 1940 shortly after her birth).

They lived in London at River Court House, Mall Road, Hammersmith, between 1923 and 1939. In 1939 they bought the Carradale House at Carradale in Kintyre, where they lived for the rest of their lives. The house was frequented by people of all sorts, lords, ladies (the position she was repugnant of), politicians, writers, neighbours, fishermen and farmers.

Literary career[edit]

Mitchison was a prolific writer, completing more than 90 books in her lifetime, across a multitude of styles and genres. These include historical novels such as her first novel The Conquered (1923) a story set in 1st century BC Gaul during the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar, and her second novel Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925) set in 5th century BC Ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War. Her best work is considered The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) which treats three different societies including a wholly fictional one, and also frankly explores themes of sexuality (daring for its day). Terri Windling described it as "a lost classic".[10] Literary critic Geoffrey Sadler has stated about Mitchison's historical fiction: "On the basis of her early writings, she is unquestionably one of the great historical novelists".[11]

In 1932, Mitchison was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to edit a guide to the modern world for children. Mitchison's book, An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents, included several distinguished contributors, including W.H. Auden, Gerald Heard, and Olaf Stapledon[12] On publication, An Outline was praised by the The Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and the London Mercury.[12] However, several clergymen, including the Archbishop of York were angered by the book's lack of emphasis on Christianity, while other right-wing authors objected to what they claimed was the book's sympathetic attitude towards the Soviet Union. Conservative writer Arnold Lunn wrote a lengthy attack on An Outline in the English Review.[13] As a result of this negative publicity, An Outline was a commercial failure.[12]

Undoubtedly her most controversial work, We Have Been Warned was published in 1935, based on her journey to the Soviet Union. In We Have Been Warned which she explored sexual behaviour, including rape and abortion.[1] The book was rejected by various publishers. She approached first her friend Victor Gollancz (of Victor Gollancz Ltd.), who flatly turned her down as he observed that "publication of the book would cause a real outcry." The book was extensively rewritten to make it more acceptable to publishers, and was still subject to censorship. Upon publication it was universally despised for its depiction of rape, free love and abortion that "alienated readers on the left and horified those on the political right."[14]

She was a compulsive writer as her travelogues would reveal. She would write on planes or in trains as prompted by the situation. For example, she wrote her visit to US in the 1930s on her journey objecting about sharecropping.

Mitchison's 1938 book The Moral Basis of Politcs was a treatise on ethics and politics that Mitchison had worked on over the last three years.[15] In this book, Mitchison defended the right of left-wing journalist H. N. Brailsford to criticise the Moscow Trials, which had caused controversy on the British left at the time.[16]

Mitchison's The Blood of the Martyrs (1939) is set against the background of Nero's persecution of the Christians; Mitchison draws parallels between Nero and contemporary dictators Mussolini and Hitler.[17]

In 1952, she went to Moscow as a member of the Authors' World Peace Appeal. She was frequently to Africa, especially to Botswana, where she was made a sort of tribal mother (Mmarona) to the baKgatla people. Mucking Around (1981) best describes her haphazard travels in five continents over 50 years.[9]

Later works included more historical novels The Bull Calves (1947) about the 1745 Jacobite Rising and The Young Alexander the Great (1960). Mitchison also turned to fantasy such as Graeme and the Dragon (1954); Graeme was her grandson through Denis); science fiction such as Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and Solution Three (1975); fantasy such as the humorous Arthurian novel To the Chapel Perilous (1955), non-fiction such as African Heroes (1968), together with children's novels, poetry, travel and a three-volume autobiography. She was never certain of the actual number books she had written (often claiming there were about 70). The articles were uncountable, from book reviews for the old Time and Tide magazine and the New Statesman to practical essays on farming, campaigning articles, recollections and reflections.

Maxim Lieber served as her literary editor in 1935.

After her husband's death, Mitchison wrote several memoirs, published as separate titles between 1973 and 1985. She was also a good friend of the writer J. R. R. Tolkien and she was one of the proof readers of The Lord of the Rings.[18]

Activism[edit]

Mitchison, like her brother, was a committed Socialist in the 1930s. She visited the Soviet Union in 1932 as part of a Fabian Society group, and expressed some misgivings about the direction of Soviet society.[19] An active anti-fascist, Mitchison travelled to Austria, where she undertook the risky task of smuggling documents and left-wing refugees out of the country.[20] [21] She stood unsuccessfully as a Labour Party candidate for the Scottish Universities in 1935, at a time when universities were allowed to elect MPs. Eventually, as her political candidacy and her pro-Left writings had failed, she gradually became disenchanted with the Left. At this time she became politically attracted to Scottish Nationalism and increasingly wrote on specifically Scottish issues and themes. Her name was on George Orwell's list, a list of people prepared in March 1949 for the Information Research Department, a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government, considered to have pro-communist leanings and therefore be inappropriate to write for the IRD.[22]

Mitchison's advocacy continued in other ways. She acted a spokeswoman for the island communities of Scotland, and became an advisor to the Bakgatla tribe of Botswana. She also took keen interest in the problems of Scotland and served on the Argyll County Council and on the Highlands and Islands Development Council. At the same time she was a serious botanist and gardener, and a practical farmer.[23] She became Labour representative in the Argyll County Council from 1945 to 1966. She was a member of the Highland Panel from 1947 to 1965, and of the Highlands and Islands Development Consultative Council from 1966 to 1976.[5][8]

Mitchison was a Life Fellow of the Eugenics Society. She was also a vocal campaigner for women's rights, advocating birth control, and was also active in local government in Scotland (1947–1976). Her own lack of knowledge about birth control (as stated in her memoirs) led to her interest in the causes of birth control and abortion. She was on the founding council of the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre in 1924. Today, she is best known for her advocacy of feminism and her tackling of then-taboo subjects in her writing. She was a principal investor in the Partisan Coffee House, a meeting place for the New Left off Soho Square that functioned from 1958 to 1962.[24]

Mitchison was also present and supporting a Stop the Seventy Tour rally, aiming to stop the apartheid South African rugby and cricket tours of Britain, in December 1969.[25]

Honours and recognitions[edit]

  • Hononary doctorate from the University of Stirling, Scotland, in 1976[26]
  • Honorary LLD (Doctor of Law) from the University of Dundee, Scotland, in 1985[27]
  • D.Litt. from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, in 1983
  • Elected to Honorary Fellow of St. Anne's College in 1980, and Wolfson College in 1983
  • Elected Member of the French Academy in 1924
  • C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire) in 1981.

Later life[edit]

Statue of Naomi Mitchison, located in South Gyle, Edinburgh

Dick predeceased her in 1970, but Naomi remained active as a writer well into her nineties.[28] She was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1981. In her old age she was constantly anxious and depressed about the future, particularly the misuse of scientific development such as nuclear armamments. She claimed that an experience of two world wars in one's lifetime was too much. On the other side, she never ran out of the Haldanes' eccentricity, and once remarked that her biography in Who's Who was a "burning rubbish".[9]

She died at Carradale on 11 January 1999 at the age of 101. She was cremated at the Clydebank crematorium, Glasgow, on 16 January. The ashes were scattered at Carradale on the following day.[8] She was survived by her three younger sons (all scientists) and her two elder daughters, and by 19 grandchildren.[29]

Bibliography[edit]

Autobiography[edit]

Mitchison's autobiography is in three parts.

  • Small Talk: Memories of an Edwardian Childhood (1973; reprinted, with an introductory essay by Ali Smith, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage (1975)
  • – published together as: As It Was: An Autobiography 1897–1918 (1975)
  • You May Well Ask: A Memoir, 1920–1940 (1979)

Novels[edit]

  • The Conquered (1923; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2011)
  • The Laburnum Branch (1926)
  • The Fairy who Couldn't Tell a Lie (1927)
  • Anna Comnena (1928; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Nix-Nought-Nothing (1928)
  • The Hostages (1930)
  • The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931)
  • Boys and Girls and Gods (1931)
  • The Prince of Freedom (1931)
  • Powers of Light (1932)
  • The Delicate Fire (1933; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2012)
  • We Have Been Warned (1935; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2012)
  • An End and a Beginning (1937)
  • The Blood of the Martyrs (1939; reprinted in 1989)
  • The Bull Calves (1947; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2013)
  • The Big House (1950; reprinted, with an introduction by Moira Burgess, Kennedy & Boyd, 2010)
  • Travel Light (Faber and Faber, 1952; Virago Press, 1985; Penguin Books, 1987; Small Beer Press, 2005; reprinted in the UK with The Varangs' Saga, and an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Graeme and the Dragon (1954
  • The Land the Ravens Found (1955)
  • To the Chapel Perilous (1955)
  • Little Boxes (1956)
  • Behold your King (1957; reprinted, with an introduction by Moira Burgess, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • The Young Alexander the Great (1960)
  • Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2011)
  • Ketse and the Chief (1965)
  • When We Become Men (1965; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Friends and Enemies (1966)
  • Big Surprise (1967)
  • Family at Ditlabeng (1969)
  • Don't Look Back (1969)
  • Far Harbour (1969)
  • Sun and Moon (1970)
  • Cleopatra's People (1972; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2010)
  • Sunrise Tomorrow: A Story of Botswana (1973)
  • A Life for Africa: The Story of Bram Fischer (1973)
  • Danish Teapot (1973)
  • Solution Three (1975; (with Susan Merrill Squier);[30] 2011, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd) ISBN 978-1-55861-096-5
  • All Change Here (1975)
  • Snake! (1976)
  • Two Magicians (with Dick Mitchison, 1979)
  • The Vegetable War (1980)
  • Mucking Around (1981)
  • Not by Bread Alone (1983)
  • Early in Orcadia (1987)
  • Images of Africa (1987)
  • As It Was (1988)
  • The Oath-takers (1991)
  • Sea-green Ribbons (1991)
  • The Dark Twin (with Marion Campbell, 1998)

Collections[edit]

  • The Brave Nurse: And Other Stories
  • The Fourth Pig (1936)
  • Five Men and a Swan (1957)
  • When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories (1924; reprinted by Pomona Press, 2006)
  • Barbarian Stories (1929)
  • Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction of Naomi Mitchison (1935; Scottish Academic Press, 1986; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2008)
  • Black Sparta (1928)
  • Cleansing of the Knife: And Other Poems (poems) (1979)
  • What Do You Think Yourself: and Other Scottish Short Stories (1982)
  • A Girl Must Live: Stories and Poems (poems) (1990)

Plays[edit]

  • The Price of Freedom. A play in three acts (with Lewis Gielgud Mitchison, 1931)

Non-fiction[edit]

  • Vienna Diary (1934; reprinted by Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • The Moral Basis of Politics (1938; Reprinted 1971)
  • Return to the Fairy Hill (1966)
  • African Heroes (1968)
  • The Africans: From the Earliest Times to the Present (1971)
  • Small Talk (1973; reprinted, with an introductory essay by Ali Smith, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Oil for the Highlands? (1974)
  • Margaret Cole, 1893–1980 (1982)
  • Among You Taking Notes... (1985)
  • Rising Public Voice: Women in Politics Worldwide (1995)
  • Essays and Journalism. Volume 2: Carradale (Kennedy & Boyd, 2009) Edited and introduced by Moira Burgess.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Naomi Mitchison". The Editors of The Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 13 May 2014. 
  2. ^ "Naomi Mitchison". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War. Retrieved 13 May 2014. 
  3. ^ Leckey, development ed.: Cathy Hartley ; contributor: Susan (2003). A Historical Dictionary of British Women (Rev. ed.). London, UK: Europa Publications. ISBN 185-74-3228-2. 
  4. ^ a b Haldane, J. B. S.; Sprunt, A. D.; Haldane, N. M. (1915). "Reduplication in mice (Preliminary Communication)". Journal of Genetics 5 (2): 133–135. doi:10.1007/BF02985370. 
  5. ^ a b Longford, Elizabeth (13 January 1999). "Obituary: Naomi Mitchison". The Independent. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  6. ^ Harrison, Sophie (17 January 1999). "Monitor: The late Naomi Mitchison – as remembered by the world's newspapers". The Independent. Retrieved 13 May 2014. 
  7. ^ Carola Oman: An Oxford Childhood (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976), p. 149. ISBN 0340212659
  8. ^ a b c Maslen, Elizabeth (2004). "Mitchison [née Haldane], Naomi Mary Margaret". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/50052. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c Jeger, Lena (13 January 1999). "Naomi Mitchison: Among us, taking a century's notes". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  10. ^ "Summation 1994: Fantasy," The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighth Annual Collection, p.xx
  11. ^ Sadler, Geoffrey, "Mitchison, Naomi", in Twentieth-century Romance and Historical Writers, edited by Aruna Vasudevan. London : St. James Press, 1994. (p. 459-462). ISBN 1558621806
  12. ^ a b c Robert Crossley, Olaf Stapledon : speaking for the future. Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 1994. ISBN 0853233888 (p.201-203)
  13. ^ David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, The Edinburgh History of the book in Scotland. Volume 4. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2007 ISBN 0748618295 (p. 247).
  14. ^ Joannou, Maroula (2012). The History of British Women's Writing 1920–1945 (1. publ. ed.). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780230282797. 
  15. ^ Patrick Deane, History in Our Hands : a critical anthology of writings on literature, culture, and politics from the 1930s. London ; Leicester University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780718501433, (p. 235-9).
  16. ^ Jill Benton, Naomi Mitchison : A Century of Experiment in Life and Letters London : Pandora, 1990. ISBN 0044404603 (p111-15).
  17. ^ Elizabeth A. Castelli, The Ambivalent Legacy of Violence and Victimhood: Using Early Christian Martyrs to Think With. Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2006.
  18. ^ "J.R.R. Tolkien Writes his Proofreader with a Lengthy Discussion of the Lord of the Rings, Including Criticism of Radio Broadcasts". Seth Kaller, Inc. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  19. ^ "...she (Mitchison) visited the Soviet Union in 1932, but unlike many Fabians, she returned to Britain with some negative impressions of the changes' in Stalin's homeland". Urquhart, Conal. "Writer with an Unquenchable Thirst for Life" (obituary). The Scotsman, 12 January 1999, (p. 3).
  20. ^ Montefiore, Janet. Men and Women writers of the 1930s : The Dangerous Flood of History. Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0415068924 (pp. 17, 60, 202).
  21. ^ Caldecott, Léonie.Women of Our Century. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984. ISBN 0563202718 (p. 27)
  22. ^ Ezard, John (21 June 2003). "Blair's babe – Did love turn Orwell into a government stooge?". The Guardian. 
  23. ^ Mitchison, Naomi (1944). "My farming and my neighbours". The Countryman 30: 23–6. 
  24. ^ Bishopsgate Institute Podcast: The Partisan Coffee House: Cultural Politics and the New Left. Mike Berlin, 11 June 2009
  25. ^ 'Sheppard leads rally', Malcolm Dean, The Guardian, 20 December 1969
  26. ^ "Mitchison, Naomi (Margaret)". The Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam™ Research, Inc. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  27. ^ "Honorary Degrees: Doctor of Laws". The University of Dundee. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  28. ^ Calder, Jenni. "Naomi Mitchison (1897–1999)". Scottish Poetry Library. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  29. ^ Tinning, William (12 January 1999). "Author Naomi Mitchison dies aged 101". Herald Scotland. Retrieved 14 May 2014. 
  30. ^ "Solution Three". The Feminist Press. Retrieved 13 May 2014. 

Sources[edit]

  • Naomi Mitchison: A Biography by Jill Benton (London: Pandora, 1990)
  • The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison by Jenni Calder (Virago, 1997)
  • Leoni Caldecott, "Naomi Mitchison". In: Women of Our Century (London: Aerial Books, 1984), 11–34.
  • Maroula Joannou, "Naomi Mitchison at One Hundred". Women: A Cultural Review 9.3 (1998), 292–304.
  • Anita Obermeier, "Postmodernism and the Press in Naomi Mitchison's To the Chapel Perilous". Postmodern Medievalisms, ed. Richard Utz and Jesse G. Swan (Cambridge: Brewer, 2004), pp. 193–207.

External links[edit]